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Marcus Mumford

Storied Newport Folk Festival Thrives After Almost 60 Years

Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons performing at last year's Newport Folk Festival. (Sachyn Mital [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons)
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NEWPORT, RI (CelebrityAccess) — In a recent essay on the now-notorious Woodstock 50 Festival, industry pundit and longtime CelebrityAccess contributor Bob Lefsetz noted:

“‘As the Who once sang, this song is over, no one wants to sing it in the wide open spaces, no one wants to sing it to the infinite sea. But the question is, are they searchin’ for a note, pure and easy, playing so free, like a breath rippling by?

“Actually, they are, they call it Newport Folk, off the radar but legendary, and continuous.”

The legendary Newport Folk does indeed often fly under the radar, despite its status as one of the oldest and most respected music festivals of the modern era in North America.

Originally launched in 1958 by impresario George Wein as an element of the already established Newport Jazz Festival, the Newport Folk Festival played a systemically important role in the folk revival of the 1950s and provided an important stage for performers of the era, including Pete Seeger, The Weavers, Odetta, and Joan Baez, who essentially launched her career at Newport Folk in 1959.

In 1959, after the Folk segment of Newport Jazz proved to be a fan favorite, the festival launched as a standalone event and expanded its focus to offer a more diverse and international musical lineup that included artists and folk traditions from around the world.

The festival also played a major role in bringing traditional American blues music to modern audiences, hosting performances from blues legends such as John Lee Hooker, Sonny Terry, and Mississippi John Hurt, who had largely been forgotten outside of the precincts of dedicated blues fans until he returned to the stage at Newport Folk in 1963.

Newport Folk Exec. Producer Jay Sweet, left, and CelebrityAccess President/Editor-in-Chief Marc Gentilella. Credit: CelebrityAccess.

The Newport Folk Festival stage also, famously, hosted the first ‘rock’ performance by Bob Dylan, who was booed during his performance for his use of the electric guitar. While the exact reason for the audience’s disapproval of Dylan going electric is still a matter of some debate, the moment marked a transition point in Dylan’s career as he moved from a folk artist to the counter culture’s poet laureate.

In recent years, Newport Folk continued to provide a stage for traditional artists from around the world but has broadened its scope to accommodate a wider range of music tastes. In 2008, festival founder George Wein brought aboard Paste Magazine editor Jay Sweet, who helped to bring a more contemporary aesthetic to the festival.

Bolstered by Sweet’s unconventional bookings, which include performers such as Mumford & Sons, The Black Crowes, and My Morning Jacket, the festival has become a must-attend event and been fully sold out every year since it marked its 50th anniversary in 2009.

The festival also has significant philanthropic outreach and, this year, the Newport Foundation has pledged to make donations on behalf of each of the 60 artists on the 2019 lineup to musical education programs around the country, including Guitars For Vets, the W.O. Smith Music School, and the Los Angeles Harmony Project.

As the festival gears up for its 2019 season, organizers for the event have announced a lineup that includes musical heavyweights such as Mavis Staples, Jeff Tweedy, and Trey Anastasio, as well as Sheryl Crow, The Highwomen (Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires, Maren Morris, and Natalie Hemby) and I’m With Her (Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan), Kacey Musgraves, Maggie Rogers, Phil Lesh & The Terrapin Family Band, Warren Haynes, Portugal, The Man, Hozier, and Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, among others.

Festival organizers also teased a special collaboration they dubbed in a social media post as ‘♀♀♀♀: The Collaboration’. The symbols, which are astrological signs for Venus, are typically used to denote women, suggesting a unique collaborative performance by some of the female artists lined up for the festival, but the tease provides no additional clarity on just who those performers may be.

The festival also revealed the details of the official afterparties for 2019, which include All Newport’s Eve Tas-Jam featuring Aaron Lee Tasjan & Friends at Newport Blues Cafe on July 25th; Steal Your Folk hosted by The Cook Brothers at Jane Pickens Theater and The Milk Carton Kids at Newport Congregational and Charley Crockett & Friends at the Parlor on July 26th; and Mavis Staples at Janes Pickens Theater on July 26th.

Proceeds from the after shows will go to benefit the Newport Festival Foundation.


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